The Big Miss
Reprinted from The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods, copyright © 2012 by Hank Haney. To be published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House Inc., on March 27, 272 pages, $26.
On March 8, 2004, I'm having dinner at Bob's Steak & Chop House in Plano, Texas, with my father, Jim, who's in town for the day. I rarely eat steak, but I order a New York strip, medium rare. The waiter has just brought us our food when my cellphone rings.
I've told my father I might be getting a call from Tiger sometime in the next few days but that I'm not really holding my breath. I don't have Tiger's number, but when I look down and see the 407 area code on my screen in front of a number I don't recognize, my stomach jumps. "Excuse me," I tell my dad, "I gotta take this call."
I walk quickly toward the entrance, and answer. "Hey, Hank," I hear on my cell, "this is Tiger." I give my normal, "Hey, Bud," greeting, but there's no small talk. Barely pausing, Tiger says, "Hank, I want to know if you'll help me with my golf game."
As I stand on the sidewalk watching the valet-parking guys running around and people going in and out of the adjoining shops, I feel disoriented. Everything around me is normal, but I know my life has just changed forever. I'm talking to Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer who's ever lived, and he's asking me to be his coach.
Because of Tiger's tone, I try to hide any excitement from my voice. "Sure, Tiger. Of course," I say, adding, "Thank you for the opportunity." Tiger stays all business, asking, "What do you think of my game?"
I kind of surprise myself with how easily I snap into professional mode. I don't say "Tiger, I think you have the best game of all time," which is what I believe. I realize he's a tour pro asking a tour teacher to measure him purely against his abilities. I say very straight, but aware of how odd it sounds, "I think your game is pretty good."
The next question isn't a surprise. "What do you think I need to do better?" I'm in my wheelhouse now, and I tell him exactly what I've observed in him for over a year. "Looking from the outside, and not knowing everything, it looks like you're working on a lot of great things," I say. "It looks like you know a lot about the swing. But it's hard for me to tell what your plan is. It doesn't look like you have a real step-by-step plan. I think when you're trying to improve, the most important thing is to always have a plan."
I leave it there, without going into specifics, and Tiger doesn't ask for any. I feel confident I've hit on the central issue. Certainly Tiger followed a plan with Butch Harmon early on, just as he followed a plan as an adolescent with John Anselmo. Indeed, I know that one of the stock responses Tiger's dad had whenever he was asked about Tiger's progress had long been, "It's all part of the plan." But it looks to me that since the end of Tiger's time with Butch -- who said his emphasis was maintaining the swing changes Tiger had made -- the plan has become less clear.
I know Tiger has a lot of knowledge about the golf swing, but a lot of players do. Sometimes that can make it even easier to become aimless, because an active and especially an impatient mind can lurch from idea to idea and go off on experimental tangents. Left on their own when practicing, talented players tend to go back to swing thoughts or feels or drills that have brought success in the past, and when one doesn't seem to work, they try another. The result is that the player is likely going in a circle, rather than working toward something. With this haphazard approach, it's very difficult for players to say at the end of a day of practice or play that they got better. With the right plan, even if things didn't go well, there is the confidence that improvement is taking place. That's what I believe Tiger needs, and I think -- recognizing that he's been in relative limbo for many months -- he's called me mainly to deal with this issue.
Our phone call lasts no more than three minutes. It ends with Tiger saying he wants me to come work with him at Isleworth. He doesn't follow with any small talk or pleasantries, so after a last quick thanks from me, we say goodbye.
After hanging up, I stand on the sidewalk stunned. Besides sheer amazement, my mind is filled with all sorts of thoughts. As a golf instructor, I feel as though I've won the lottery. I'm going to gain in stature. I'm going to be famous. I'm going to get to try out all my ideas on the ultimate student, and he's going to prove them so right. And then I think, I won't even have to tell him anything. This guy is going to win no matter what I tell him. He's done it all his life, he's so good. I've just landed the easiest job in golf.
After a long few minutes, I walk back into the restaurant. I tell my father I'm now Tiger's coach. It feels kind of funny, because my dad's the biggest Jack Nicklaus fan who ever lived, and I know he isn't going to want Tiger to break Jack's record of 18 professional major championships. He chuckles at that, and I can tell he's proud. But he also has a sense of the pressures ahead, and he says, "You know, that's going to be a hard job. Are you sure you want to do it?" I appreciate the question. But, yes, I'm sure. To be able to teach the best player -- that's always been my dream. I'm going to give Tiger as much as I've got for as long as I can. And somehow I already know he's going to be the last touring pro I teach.
PROTECTING TIGER'S KNEE
Tiger's swing situation and the changes required were complicated by three issues.
The first was his left knee, which had bothered him for years. Protecting Tiger's knee during the swing and still getting performance wasn't a simple thing. Although Tiger said Butch had encouraged him to "snap" his left knee at impact to gain distance, the move had another, more positive purpose. Basically, the fast and dramatic clearing of the hips that caused the hyperextension was a way to "hold off" club rotation and not hit a hook, even when Tiger's plane was slightly across the line. Hyperextending, or snapping his leg allowed Tiger to more easily hit a power fade with his driver, as well as control his irons with shots he knew had little chance of curving left. Essentially, snapping his knee allowed Tiger to eliminate one side of the golf course, a hallmark of great players from Hogan and Locke to Nicklaus and Trevino.
But now to preserve his knee, Tiger wanted some flex in his left leg at impact. This meant not turning his hips as aggressively through the ball, making it easier for Tiger to turn his hands over in the hitting area and hit a hook. It was the shot he most dreaded, because with a clubhead speed of more than 125 miles per hour, a hook for Tiger could easily turn out to be a big miss.
The second issue was the movement of Tiger's head. Tiger was very attached to the idea of moving his head to the right on the backswing and leaving it there on the downswing. It was a move that had served him well as a skinny junior golfer trying to keep up in distance with the bigger kids. By staying behind the ball, Tiger could produce a "slinging" action with the club that, though not consistently accurate, generated a lot of speed and gave him the distance he believed he needed to win. Even as he got older and longer off the tee, he felt he needed to keep his floating head position to continue to outdrive the majority of other pros.
He wasn't completely wrong. It's just that in his case, the head movement had developed into a contributing cause of getting "stuck." He could have gotten away with moving his head to the right if, on the downswing, he had put it back where it started. But with the longer clubs and especially the driver, he usually didn't. Instead it stayed to the right and lowered. There were periods in which I won this argument with Tiger, and in my opinion those were the times he produced his best golf. But it was an ongoing battle.
The third issue was the biggie. Simply put, Tiger played the driver with a lot of fear.
"TIGER'S PHYSICAL THERAPIST WORRIED ABOUT THE DAMAGE THE MILITARY TRAINING MIGHT BE DOING TO HIS LEFT KNEE."
It was a shocker for me. One of the adjectives most often used to describe Tiger Woods was fearless. But the more I observed him close up, the more it became clear: he wasn't. We never talked about it directly. I didn't want to say anything that could undermine Tiger's confidence, which was more important than any technical improvement. Sometimes, to make it less of a big deal, he'd remind me that he had never considered himself a particularly good driver, at least in comparison with the rest of his game. "That's why my name is Woods," he'd joke. "Maybe it would have been different if I'd been named Fairway."
A SOLUTION FOR WILD DRIVING
I believed in what we were doing, and so did Tiger. Gradually the wild drives started to lessen, but the process was going to require steps through the different levels a touring pro faces. First there would be fewer wild drives on the practice tee at Isleworth, then in practice rounds at Isleworth, then on the practice tee at tournaments, then in practice rounds at tournaments, then in practice sessions before competitive rounds, then in competitive rounds, and finally in competitive rounds at majors. That's a tour player's progression, one of the hardest things about the profession.
After the 2004 Masters, Tiger finished tied for third at Charlotte on the Quail Hollow course, which is demanding off the tee. It was a good sign, but at his next tournament in Dallas, I decided to try to install one more significant change. The setting was right because I was at home and Tiger could work with me in private at Vaquero. Tiger had played well in the first two rounds, shooting 65–67 to take the lead. Normally, I wouldn't have tried to show him anything new at such a juncture, but I knew Tiger would be in a good mood, and I felt an inspiration, so after Friday's round I asked him if he'd put in some practice with me at Vaquero.
Tiger was staying at the Four Seasons at the golf course, so he followed me in his courtesy car the 10 miles to my place. On the way I had to decide how to introduce the idea in a way that he wouldn't immediately dismiss. I'd heard his quote about throwing out 90 percent of what he heard from teachers and keeping maybe 5 percent, so when we got to Vaquero, I said, "Tiger, I want you to try something that I think might make that 5 percent you hear from teachers that you actually keep." He laughed, and his good mood seemed to continue as we drove a cart out to the back of the range.
Basically, I believed Tiger would be better off with one more safeguard against the big miss. I'd found that pros who suffered from driver wildness invariably held the club more in the fingers. In my case, I'd altered my grip so the club was more in the palms. I had gotten the idea from studying Moe Norman, a Canadian whose competitive career had been hampered by his autism but who was legendary for the repetitive accuracy of his shots. Norman's swing was notable for its relative lack of hand action.
I'd noticed that when I held the club out with just my left hand, if the grip was in the fingers, the clubhead would quiver and shake with any change in grip pressure. But when I held it in my palms, the club was much more stable and would barely twist.
Grip changes are huge decisions for pros, because in the short term they're uncomfortable and greatly affect feel. So I told Tiger, "Look, I just want to show you something. Just keep an open mind and try it for me, OK?" He looked at me skeptically. I demonstrated the grip I wanted him to try, then put his left hand on his 5-iron and showed him how I wanted him to hold the club more in his palm. He immediately said, "I can't do this." I quickly said, "Yeah, I know it feels weird, but just try it." He took the new grip, placing his right hand also with more of his palm, and waggled the club. "There is no way," he said. I repeated my urging, putting a ball in front of him to hit. He got over the ball and complained, "I can't even cock my wrists." I said, "Just hit one." He stood over the ball for a longer time than usual, then swung. The sound of the impact was distinctive. Tiger's shots always made a great sound, but this was even more "flush." The ball flight was ideal as well. Tiger was visibly astounded that he'd hit such a perfect shot with such an uncomfortable feeling. He looked at me and said, "Show me that grip again." I put his hands on the club, and he once again said, "I can't hit the ball with this grip." I answered, "You just did." He hit two more shots solidly and went, "Wow." After about a dozen more balls, he looked at me and said, "I'm going with it."
And just like that, he did. He used the grip the next two rounds at Dallas, and though he shot 70-69 to finish in a tie for fourth, he never complained about it. It was the fastest Tiger ever accepted any change I ever proposed to him, and the astounding thing is that it was probably the biggest change we ever made. Even though it was a grip that cost him some distance because it slightly restricted his hand action, Tiger never complained about the sacrifice and continued to hold the club more in the palm the entire time I coached him. The whole weird way it happened remains improbable to me and is a good example of how Tiger was simply different. I can't imagine another player adjusting to a grip change so quickly.
A FASCINATION WITH MILITARY TRAINING
Psychologically, Tiger was entering a difficult time in 2007. At the top of the bell curve of a career, expectation is greater than ever, but by definition decline overtakes improvement. Certainly Tiger wasn't going to concede reaching the top of the curve, but even he had to know he was very close, and it was going to take all he had to keep pushing against the forces of time. And it didn't help that the standard he'd established meant criticism -- of his swing, of his putting, of his attitude -- whenever he didn't win. No player in history had ever faced such high expectations. There were a few times when he was taking hits for not winning one of the first three majors of the year, and the weight of it all would show, and he'd say, "Nothing is ever good enough."
For me, the job got harder. There was more urgency and less fun. Tiger was more irritable and impatient. The process of improvement had been his emphasis when we first started our work, but he began to be much more concerned about results, or in his words, "getting the W." He never mentioned Nicklaus' record, but it started to weigh more heavily at every major. And Tiger's actions indicated he believed he had less time to do it than everyone else thought.
In retrospect, 2007 was when Tiger began to lose the joy of playing and began to look at his career as something he wanted to get over with sooner rather than later. And the most obvious sign was his growing obsession with the military.
His fixation really came out when he played a SEALs video game. Tiger would put on headphones, through which an animated commander would give him orders for the next mission to be carried out. The objective was to keep overcoming increasingly difficult tests. Tiger would get totally immersed, sitting on the edge of the couch, as intense and focused as if he were playing in a major championship.
It had gone far beyond video games, into the real world. That its roots were in his connection to his father, Earl, who'd achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Special Forces and served in Vietnam, had been clear for a few years. Right after the 2004 Masters, only a month after we'd begun working together, Tiger went to Fort Bragg, N.C., to do four days of Army special-operations training. With Earl in attendance, Tiger did two tandem parachute jumps, engaged in hand-to-hand combat exercises, went on four-mile runs wearing combat boots, and did drills in a wind tunnel. Tiger loved it, but his physical therapist, Keith Kleven, went a little crazy worrying about the further damage Tiger might be doing to his left knee.
Tiger's military activities began to take the form of two- or three-day sessions at naval and marine outposts involving exercises with Navy SEALs teams, and they would increase dramatically. Less than two weeks after Earl's funeral and three weeks before the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Tiger had gone to installations near San Diego for a three-day session in parachuting. In my long email to Tiger after that tournament, here's what I said:
With the U.S. Open 18 days away, do you think it was a good idea to go on a Navy SEALs mission? You need to get that whole SEALs thing out of your system and stick to playing Navy SEAL on the video games. I can tell by the way you are talking and acting that you still want to become a Navy SEAL. Man, are you crazy? You have history to make in golf and people to influence and help. Focus on your destiny, and that isn't flushing bad guys out of buildings in Iraq. Just play the video games some more. That Navy SEAL stuff is serious business. They use real bullets.
I took a dismissive tone in that email because I really thought the military stuff was a phase that Tiger would soon realize was ridiculous. I was trying to shake him back to his senses regarding this G.I. Joe fantasy. But a year later, I realized I'd underestimated. When we were at his house and he was watching the Military Channel or the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs) DVD, an exercise or training mission would catch his eye and he'd make a comment like, "That would be cool," or "I'd really like to do that." He was telling me that this SEAL thing was more than fun and games to him. One morning I was in the kitchen when he came back from a long run around Isleworth, and I noticed he was wearing Army boots. Tiger admitted that he'd worn the heavy shoes before on the same route. "I beat my best time," he said.
The military became central to his life, and in 2007 Tiger probably went on half a dozen SEALs trips. When the new season began, one of Tiger's first public acts was to visit a "special warfare" SEALs unit on the Tuesday of Torrey Pines. According to news reports, he told the assembled group at a facility in Coronado, outside San Diego, "If I hadn't been in golf, I would have been here with you guys. When I was younger, I always dreamed of being a Navy SEAL." The first PGA Tour event where he was named host -- the 2007 AT&T National -- took place outside Washington, D.C., over the July 4 weekend and allowed active military personnel into the gates free.
"THE LENGTHS TIGER WENT TO TO MAKE A SEALS CAREER A REAL POSSIBILITY STILL STUN ME."
I was beginning to realize that his sentiment ran deep, and that as incredible as it seemed, Tiger was seriously considering becoming a Navy SEAL. I didn't know how he'd go about it, but when he talked about it, it was clear that he had a plan. After finding out that the Navy SEAL age limit is 28, I asked Tiger about his being too old to join. "It's not a problem," he said. "They're making a special age exception for me."
I thought, Wow. Here is Tiger Woods, the greatest athlete on the planet, maybe the greatest athlete ever, right in the middle of his prime, basically ready to leave it all behind for a military life. The only thing that probably rivals it in sports history is Michael Jordan leaving basketball to play minor-league baseball. Although Tiger ultimately didn't enlist, the lengths he went to to make a SEALs career a real possibility still stun me.
Tiger formed close connections with some ex-SEALs. One was someone whom Tiger would eventually hire as his family and personal bodyguard. The guy had accompanied Tiger on the Torrey Pines visit, and he seemed to be a kind of liaison who was smoothing Tiger's path toward the military.
While the guy was working for Tiger, with duties that included giving Tiger and Elin lessons in self-defense, he'd sometimes stay at the house in Isleworth. In fact, my first meeting with him took place when I got to Isleworth past midnight after a late flight from Dallas. I didn't have a key to Tiger's house, but Tiger would leave the door unlocked whenever I came in late. This time, I opened it quietly, only to find the guy peering at me through the darkness with one of those scary Navy SEALs looks. I assumed he wasn't expecting me, so I just said, "Hi, I'm Hank." He was staying in the bedroom I normally used, so after an awkward introduction he helped me choose another one.
I talked to the guy only a couple more times, and never in depth. He didn't volunteer much, and I didn't probe. Tiger's caddie, Steve Williams, had been around him more, and Steve told me he didn't like his influence on Tiger. Steve thought the self-defense stuff and the other workouts Tiger was doing could get him hurt. And Steve thought the guy was weird. Steve said the guy told him that Earl was speaking to him and giving him instructions on how to help Tiger. Steve said he played dumb and asked, "You mean Earl, Tiger's father, who died last year?" Steve said the guy simply answered, "Yeah."
Tiger's SEALs exercises were scheduled on the calendars of his inner circle, but everyone knew not to talk about them to anyone. Unlike Tiger's first trip to Fort Bragg, in 2004, or his PR-oriented visit to the SEALs around the time of Torrey Pines, the other SEALs visits were kept quiet by the Navy. It was understood that if the extent of Tiger's military activities got out, it would start a media frenzy.
I was never totally clear on the exact nature of Tiger's sojourns. All I'm sure about is that it was more than some kind of risk-free fantasy camp. Tiger didn't tell me a lot, but from what he did tell me, and what someone else later confirmed, Tiger was participating in a program that approximated the training for a Navy SEAL candidate. The purpose was a sort of "dry run" to determine whether he could physically and mentally handle the demands, and if so, whether he wanted to go forward with actually becoming a Navy SEAL.
To my knowledge, he did training in parachuting, self-defense, urban-warfare simulations and shooting. I never heard of Tiger doing any training in the water with the SEALs, but he was already a pretty accomplished diver. He had his scuba certification and had done a lot of free-diving to depths of more than 100 feet. He claimed to be able to hold his breath a long time -- up to four minutes. Supposedly, he used a technique called "lung packing" in which lung capacity is increased through "swallowing" air after inhaling to capacity.
When I asked Tiger how his trips had gone, he might confirm having completed a training session in a specific discipline by making a comment like "Yeah, I knocked that out," as if he were passing progressive steps. When he shared some things about the experience, it was clear from phrases like "total rush" and "intense" that it was all a thrill.
Tiger said that a three-day trip that was focused on parachuting might include as many as 10 jumps a day. He'd jump solo or in tandem. I was told that Tiger once hurt his shoulder in a tandem jump when he smashed into his partner in midair.
Tiger came back almost boastful from his firearms training, saying that he'd excelled in long-range marksmanship. He talked all about the different guns and how to allow for wind and the flight of the bullet, almost as if he were describing a golf shot.
Self-defense stuff was a favorite topic. He'd gotten more into it as fatherhood approached, telling me that he really wanted to be able to protect his family and his home if anything ever happened. After his training, he explained about the different martial arts that are incorporated in the SEAL style of hand-to-hand combat. Once, in his living room in Isleworth, he had me stand up so he could demonstrate some moves. He got me in one position with his arm around my neck where I couldn't really move. "From here," he said, "I could kill you in about two seconds." I kind of laughed and said, "Please don't."
When I later learned the full truth about the dangerous exercises that Tiger engaged in with the SEALs, it caused me to question whether the greatest golfer the game has ever seen severely hampered his chance at surpassing one of the most revered marks in all of sports -- Jack Nickaus' record -- because of his fascination with the military.